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Iran set to extend reign as Asia's futsal kings, says AFC

The biggest-ever Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Futsal Championship 2003 is to kick off on Sunday in Tehran, Iran, the undisputed Asian heartland of the sport.

Sixteen teams from across the continent line up for the annual AFC Futsal Championship, with the hosts and defending champions expected to lift the trophy aloft in front of their home fans on August 5, according to an AFC statement on Saturday, IRNA reported from Kuala Lumpur.

The tournament, initially to be hosted by Japan, was moved to Iran after concerns over the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak were expressed by the Japanese Football Association.

Iran hosted the tournament in 2001 with the participation of 14 teams but this year will see the largest participation of futsal teams, 16 in all, since the championship began in 1999, it said.

The statement said Asian futsal kings, Iran, look once again to be the team to beat and it will be difficult for any team to challenge their reign.

AFC said Iran, with home ground advantage and probably the only Asian country with an organized futsal league, will have all odds stacked against any team to snatch the title of Asian Futsal Champion.

"We expect the competition to be keener with a bigger number of teams participating," said AFC General Secretary Peter Velappan.

"This shows that more Asian countries are catching the futsal `bug' which can only be good for the game to develop in Asia."

Iran, winners of the four previous AFC futsal tournaments, with 35 wins and no defeat, are in a league of their own in futsal and their Group C rivals--China, Kyrgzstan and debutants Lebanon--will have to fight it out among themselves for second place in the group. The top two from the four groups qualify for the quarter-finals.

Japan, who were beaten 6-0 in last year's AFC futsal final, should have no trouble qualifying from Group A, where they face Kuwait, Macau and Palestine. Kuwait, quarter-finalists last time out, should advance to the last eight.

Thailand, Southeast Asia's premier futsal team, should advance from Group D.

In what has already been dubbed the "Group of Death," Thailand, crowned ASEAN futsal champions a few weeks ago, are grouped with Iraq and Uzbekistan, both of whom made it to the quarter-finals in last year's event, and Malaysia.

South Korea, another Asian futsal superpower, should prove too strong for their Group B rivals--Indonesia, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong. Whoever joins South Korea in the last eight will be doing so for the first time in their futsal history.

"It is fantastic that Asia's premier futsal event will begin after being threatened by the SARS virus," Velappan said, adding that "Iran have been gracious in coming in at the 11th hour to host this tourment."

The tournament starts on Sunday at 16:45 local time (Tehran time) when the Korean Republic take on Hong Kong.

AFC said the home fans will raise the roof at the Tehran's Azadi Stadium a few hours later, at 7 p.m., when Iran take on Lebanon.

... Payvand News - 7/26/03 ... --

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